On a recent afternoon in Tripoli’s port in northern Lebanon, cranes were pouring grain from a docked ship onto waiting trucks, while elsewhere piles of scrap metal were waiting to be loaded onto an outbound vessel. The container area that had been largely empty a few weeks ago was now a maze of stacked shipping containers.
Lebanon’s second largest port has languished in the years since the Syrian civil began in 2011, but in the wake of the devastating Beirut port explosion, it stepped up to ensure that imports of grain and essential supplies would not be halted while the nation’s largest port was out of commission.
Now, as the Beirut port has largely returned to service in the weeks after the explosion, some are pushing for a continuing expanded role for Tripoli’s port.
“The Port of Tripoli is historically one of the most important ports in the Eastern Mediterranean region,” port director Ahmed Tamer told Al Arabiya English.
But in recent years, the Tripoli port’s primary function, as a transit station for goods headed to Syria and then on to Iraq – which had relied on Lebanon as the transit point for goods coming over the Mediterranean from Europe and elsewhere – had been disrupted.
“Iraq doesn’t have a port on the Mediterranean, they have a port on the Gulf, so as a result, all the goods coming from Europe or America [would come through Lebanon],” he said.
Meanwhile, the Beirut port historically handled the bulk of local trade. According to a recently released World Bank damage assessment on the port explosion, the Beirut port had been the entry and exit point for about 68 percent of Lebanon’s external trade between 2011 and 2018. In 2018, nearly 8 million tons of merchandise passed through the Beirut port, according to a Blom Bank report.
The Tripoli Port has the capacity to receive about 5 million tons of cargo a year – and potentially as much as 7 million tons with logistic improvements, but had been working at 2 million tons a year. The port’s container area, which was holding about 80,000 containers before the explosion, has room for 300,000 or more, Tamer said.
“We are able to cover all the needs of Lebanon with regards to local trade, imports and exports,” Tamer said, noting that Lebanon imports about 350,000 containers a year. “…The difference is that instead of working 12 hours a day, now we’re working 24 hours a day to ensure that our supply chain management quality is good. We were in a period of retraction, but now we’ve returned to our core essence.”
While Beirut port is reportedly back at full capacity when it comes to shipping, the destruction of storage facilities there ensures that Tripoli will continue to have an expanded role. The Beirut port blast destroyed the port’s grain silos, with a capacity of 120,000 metric tons, along with about 15,000 metric tons of wheat and larger quantities of animal feed grain.
Storage, not shipments is the issue
While the World Food Programme quickly shipped in 12,500 metric tons of wheat flour and sent mobile storage units to the Beirut port, in the long run, the loss of the silos presents an issue, particularly once the winter rainy season arrives, said Assaad Haddad, the general manager of the Beirut Port grain silos.
“We don’t have a problem of imports,” he said. “We have a problem of how to store the quantity coming in a few months.”
Haddad estimated that rebuilding the silos will take about two years. In the meantime, he said pneumatic conveyors and temporary storage facilities had been brought into the ports of Beirut and Tripoli.
“Even before this disaster, we were working on a strategic plan to distribute wheat storage in several places in Beqaa [in east Lebanon] and Tripoli and Beirut,” he said to meet the country’s projected need for silo capacity of about 350,000 metric tons.
The plan was to build silos in Tripoli that could store 120,000 metric tons of grain, similar to the Port of Beirut, Haddad said, with further capacity to be added in the Beqaa later. In the wake of the port explosion, that plan has gained added urgency. Haddad said the Ministry of Economy and Trade had completed a study on the plan last week and sent it to the Union of Arab Banks in hopes that they would fund a portion of the project.
Because the plan had been in the works before the Beirut port explosion, Haddad said, “We have all the needed maps, all the engineering studies, so we can proceed quickly.”
Revival of a city?
Asked what Tripoli port’s future role will be and whether it might present opportunities for the economically depressed city, Tamer demurred, saying, “Both [the Beirut and Tripoli ports] are under the Lebanese state.
The Lebanese state in the end decides how it wants to distribute the roles…We don’t think in terms of competition.”
But others are clearly hoping that Tripoli will continue to play a larger role.
Najib Mikati, the Tripoli native former Prime Minister and billionaire businessman who is the political patron of newly appointed Prime Minister Mustapha Adib, said in a recent statement that “the key to growth in Tripoli is the port” and that his Independent Center Bloc “puts the process of developing and activating it at the center of priorities.”
Likewise, North Lebanon Merchants Association head Assad Hariri said in a statement, “The state needs to take seriously that there is a port in Tripoli that is equivalent to Beirut in its services and is a coronary artery to the heart of Lebanon. Enough dealing with Tripoli as if it were second class.”
The recent World Bank damage assessment also seemed to advocate for a potentially expanded role for Tripoli, noting that the catastrophe offers an opportunity to “‘build back better’ the ports system of Lebanon.”
“‘Building back better’ could imply revisiting the siting and sizing of the Port of Beirut and rebalancing roles and investment in Tripoli, Sidon [south of Beirut], and in other logistics infrastructure such as dry ports and the rail network, in an economic corridor approach, to better position Lebanon to benefit from possible future opportunities in the region,” the report said. “This could also allow for precious public domain real estate in the Port of Beirut to be developed in a more integrated and safer way with the city.”
If handled correctly, the report noted, Lebanon could “seize the opportunity of this crisis to change the trajectory of the country’s development and substantial economic growth, and public safety can be realized through such a holistic and ambitious approach.”